Grande appeal turned down; Pa.’s highest court rejects insanity bid — (The Sharon Herald)

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The Sharon Herald

By Joe Pinchot, Herald Staff Writer

Published November 21, 2006 09:36 pm

The state Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from convicted murderer Leon R. “Luggo” Grande. Tuesday’s ruling lets stand a Superior Court decision that a government report about a medication Grande was taking does not give him an insanity defense.SHARPSVILLE ­- The state Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from convicted murderer Leon R. “Luggo” Grande.

Tuesday’s ruling lets stand a Superior Court decision that a government report about a medication Grande was taking does not give him an insanity defense.

Grande, 65, formerly of Hermitage, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder for the May 1, 2000, drowning death of Deborrah DeSantis, 47, at her home in Sharpsville. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison, the maximum allowed for third-degree murder.

Grande alleged that a federal Food and Drug Administration report released March 22, 2004, concerning the use of Zoloft, an anti-depressant drug, provided new evidence in his case.

In December 2000, Grande underwent a pre-trial psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Robert M. Wettstein, who determined that Grande suffers from a major depressive disorder, and prescribed Zoloft.

The disorder impaired Grande’s ability to premeditate Ms. DeSantis’ death, but was not severe enough that Grande could claim to be insane, Wettstein concluded.

Grande said he pleaded guilty to third-degree murder because he could not enter an insanity defense.

Grande, who is in the state prison in Albion, made these claims about his use of Zoloft and the FDA’s report:

Studies showed there is an increased risk of suicidal thought in children, particularly at the beginning of treatment, and the FDA responded by advising doctors and caregivers to monitor all those taking Zoloft for behaviors such as anxiety, agitation, panic attacks and hostility.

The FDA recommended that manufacturers include stronger warnings about the need to monitor patients for worsening of depression and beginning of suicidal thoughts.

Grande, represented by attorney Randall T. Hetrick, said he started taking Zoloft shortly before he drowned Ms. DeSantis, and the FDA findings give him the rationale to offer an insanity defense.

His guilty plea was, therefore, unlawfully induced, argued Grande, who is asking that his mental health be evaluated to determine whether he would be eligible for an insanity defense.

Mercer County Common Pleas Judge Francis J. Fornelli previously denied Grande’s claims. He said Grande was “homicidal, not suicidal, and there is no suggestion that the hostility and/or agitation allegedly induced by antidepressants necessarily cause an individual to commit murder.”

“Many murderers are likely characterized as hostile and/or agitated at the time of their crimes, but these common and ordinary emotion states do not routinely lead to murder,” the judge said.

Grande had not shown that the consequences of taking Zoloft “justify or excuse his killing or otherwise negate his guilt,” Fornelli concluded.

While the FDA had not issued its warning before Grande’s plea, Grande’s attorney, Don Lewis, talked about Zoloft side effects and case histories of people who had taken Zoloft at Grande’s sentencing on June 14, 2001, Fornelli said.

Superior Court agreed with Fornelli. In a decision filed Feb. 21, the three-judge panel noted that Wettstein reported that Grande suffered from irritable moods, sleep deprivation and suicidal thoughts for several years, well before he began taking Zoloft.

The court said Grande has not shown he was legally insane at the time of Ms. DeSantis’ murder, or that Zoloft made him unaware of what he was doing at the time he killed her.